U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s speech on China policy at George Washington University on May 26 comprehensively elaborated the U.S. strategic thinking on China, with the intention of creating a thoughtful, prudent and firm image of the United States on the development of China-U.S. relations and international affairs.
After Donald Trump’s U.S.-centric approach unscrupulously ripped apart U.S. relations with allies and got recklessly tough on strategic rivals, President Joe Biden and Blinken have taken over a rotten international affairs situation that the U.S. has probably not seen in the past two decades. Since the demise of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War, America’s unipolar world hegemony has been affected by events like 9/11, but its overall image of strength and leadership had never been absent nor really challenged until the Trump presidency.
When Biden took office and began to address Trump’s diplomatic legacy, China was one of the many issues to be addressed that could not be avoided. So the Biden administration proposed a mix of cooperation, competition and confrontation with China and began to work in all three areas, including, for example, pursuing a more aggressive engagement. The climate negotiations, with John Kerry as the special presidential envoy for climate, are included in the cooperation category, while in areas such as high-technology and trade, the actions are stronger than competition and closer to confrontation.
The Anchorage, Alaska, meeting in March last year marked the beginning of Blinken’s formal engagement with China as secretary of state, but it was a continuation of years of U.S. diplomatic posturing against China, especially the previous four years of Trump’s brashness. So when Yang Jiechi dropped his gentle diplomatic rhetoric, Blinken, who was looking directly at him, could feel the anger from the Chinese side, even though he did not understand the language. It was an unprecedented scene. China pursued diplomacy as an equal with the United States based on the size of its economy.
The diplomatic posture of both countries has been changing since Anchorage, with China looking to further establish diplomacy as an equal and prove the success of its approach. The ceremony marking the centennial of the Communist Party of China, the success of the Chinese delegation at the Tokyo Olympics and the success of the Beijing Winter Olympics all confirm China’s indisputable position in a world facing profound changes of a kind unseen in a century.
The U.S., for its part, has passively opted for a more pragmatic, stoic and resolute strategy in a host of domestic and foreign affairs. The abandonment of its effort to extradite Meng Wanzhou was a revision of an earlier misguided strategy and a disorienting gesture of goodwill, while the woeful withdrawal from Afghanistan was undoubtedly the biggest adjustment in U.S. military strategy abroad since the Gulf War.
The core of good strategy is making choices that best meet the need. Even with its long-term presence in Afghanistan, the United States was unable to gain control of the mountainous country. The barren resources prevented it from recovering its costs, while tying the its hands and leaving it unable to focus its resources on more important imaginary enemies. The United States has stepped away from unnecessary battlefields, brought allies back to its side, accelerated the strengthening of epidemic control and vaccination, addressed U.S. domestic consumption and boosted employment by dramatically increasing liquidity, all while continuing to point at Taiwan, the South China Sea, Xinjiang, human rights, trade, high-technology, the Olympics and other issues closely related to China. The Biden administration’s efforts paid off significantly after Russia launched its war against Ukraine.
Russia has not achieved a quick victory. The U.S. has also found that, first, Russia is not as strong as it was thought to be. Second, the war of public opinion has helped unite NATO allies and draw in potential allies to discourage Chinese aid to Russia. And, third, helping Ukraine stall Russia through military aid has paid off significantly and avoided the huge costs and escalation of war that would have resulted from direct U.S. or NATO involvement.
Henry Kissinger said recently in Davos that whether Volodymyr Zelensky accepts it or not, the only strategic focus of the U.S. at the moment is China. So the U.S. wants Ukraine to cede land to end the war so that the U.S. can focus on competing with China. This is because, first, Russia needs to recuperate and restore its national strength after this war, and the U.S. does not need to worry much more. Second, a continued war will increase risks to supply chains, energy and food and shore up inflation, which is not in the interest of the United States and its European allies. Third, if the war continues and spins out of control, it will prompt an escalation of the China-Russia alliance. In short, competition with China is the key. The intention to use Ukraine to drag Russia down has been realized, and there is no need to fight on.
Meanwhile, China, under the influence of epidemic controls, has suffered a major impact on its economic development and has seen its GDP growth rate fall below that of the United States for the first time since it introduced reform and opening-up in late 1978. With the end of Biden’s trip to East Asia and the new economic, trade and supply chain alliance with ASEAN and India, the U.S. has created many problems for China in its immediate neighborhood and tied up more fences around China. And China’s inward circulation-oriented model, given the disruption of the epidemic, is undoubtedly also facilitating America’s efforts to build closer ties with these countries through basic manufacturing and new supply chains.
These are the diplomatic gains the United States had begun to enjoy before Blinken’s recent speech on China. The process in which forces in the world wax and wane came sooner than expected. Blinken’s passive-sounding but more provocative and assertive speech is both a summary of the Biden administration’s policy and actions toward China since it took office, and a more mature, multifaceted, intelligent and offensive platform for action after the rhetoric has been tinkered with.
Blinken tried to avoid sheer conflict and emphasized the Chinese and American people, joint development, and the need not to seek to change China’s political system. With the epidemic raging for two years, Russia’s war in Ukraine continuing, prices soaring and the economy sluggish, these words were meant to please allies and the public and give the United States high standing in international public opinion. But the linguistic embellishments do not conceal the fact that the U.S. is essentially seeking maximum containment after defining China as a “revolutionary country.” Biden’s expression hinting at military involvement in the Taiwan Strait when he was in Japan can no longer be explained as just a slip of the tongue.
Blinken’s speech also revealed that he and Biden are still stuck in the narrow view of unipolar hegemony and the priority of U.S. interests. They lack more comprehensive thinking and vision of changing world trends and corresponding China-U.S. relations. In the three decades since the end of the Cold War, U.S. elites have become accustomed to their self-centered mindset. The strategic shortsightedness brought by such limitations of vision is bound to have adverse effects on world peace and development.
First of all, making China’s neighbors join the U.S. as rivals in competition with China is something that Biden and Blinken cannot achieve. Blinken’s formulation of old wine in a new bottle remains the unilateral logic of “U.S. interests first,” and his desire to encircle China is itself a manifestation of Cold War mentality. Shifting the risk of conflict and confrontation to East, Southeast and South Asia would entail both extremely high political and military costs for the United States and the elimination of long-term, tangible geopolitical anxiety on all sides.
Blinken’s China policy speech changed from the mix of cooperation, competition and confrontation proposed a year ago to a policy of “invest and align” with U.S. allies and partners, leaving China with competition alone. In describing this strategy, Blinken sought a basis for consensus by playing up the China threat theory.
The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework implicitly entails that countries in certain geographic positions accept a price to be paid. Whether, how and to what extent it will be accepted will be specifically measured and evaluated. It is relatively easy to reach a basis for cooperation with the U.S. when it is consistent with the short- and long-term interests of a country’s aspirations, and vice versa. The reality is that countries in East, Southeast and South Asia all have different economic bases and development aspirations, and the challenge of finding consistency in the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific governance framework itself is enormous, while long-term stable consistency is difficult to achieve.
Meanwhile, domestic political developments in the U.S. do not appear to have left Biden sufficient time and space. In the aftermath of the epidemic, the dollar over-issuance, global supply chain issues and food and energy issues exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine war are all reflected in huge inflationary pressures. The enormous challenges facing the Biden administration before the midterm elections are also not limited to inflation but also include social divisions over issues such as gun control and abortion. Blinken’s speech on China may be attacked by the Republican Party for not being tough enough. The pressure of domestic politics may force the Biden administration to do something more direct to contain China, which could trigger further destructive, offensive actions.
Globalization is facing great challenges and suffering severe shocks. The pandemic has exacerbated fragmentation and deepened geopolitical, ethnic, religious and climatic conflicts and conflicts over imbalances of development and trade. The result of all this is the emergence of nationalism and unilateralism.
In the process of irreversible globalization, it is normal to recognize differences and contradictions, but it is the role of visionary and wise politicians to provide solutions to resolve them. American elites, who are accustomed to talking about diversity and inclusiveness, have adopted the expression “do not seek to change China’s political system,” echoing Blinken’s speech, but are in reality unable to accommodate the differences between China and the United States.
Rapid global development and profound connectivity are posing greater challenges to leaders around the world. Maintaining good governance and coordinating with neighbors and the international community is a common requirement for nations large and small, developed and developing, and nations with different institutions and mechanisms, cultural heritage and social environments. Seeking to maximize one’s own interests through containment, confrontation, closure, non-inclusiveness or even the use of force runs against the will of the people in the world. Blinken’s speech on China did not break out of the realm of selfish competition or provide any solution to the diversity and inclusiveness of the world. Hence, it remains outdated and banal.